Is It Time for "Roundtable" to Make a Comeback?
Polycom announces an upgrade to a video endpoint that hearkens back to the "flying saucer" audio conference phones. Will it fly?
Shortly after Microsoft announced Office Communications Server in 2007, I toured the portion of the Redmond campus where the then-fledgling UC group was headquartered. Microsoft was getting the message out that they were in the UC business, and they had a lot to show off, starting with the smart people running the division, led by Gurdeep Singh Pall, who really drove OCS and the UC business unit to the point where they were poised for the success they are now enjoying.
They also showed me quite a few interesting communications devices. There was the "Tanjay" desk phone reference design, the one where the handset looked like it was perpetually about to tip off the cradle but was actually resting quite securely. Device makers including Polycom came out with their own "Tanjay" models, but the phone never really took off.
Microsoft also showed me their "Roundtable" video conferencing endpoint--a device that used multiple video cameras atop a stand. Only one camera transmitted at a time, and the device determined which camera would transmit based on where the active audio stream was coming from. It was a nifty idea but, again, Microsoft didn't make a lot of headway with it, and in 2009, they transferred the intellectual property for Roundtable to Polycom, which rebranded it as their CX5000 device.
Between 2009 and now, Polycom didn't call a lot of attention to the Roundtable/CX5000 either, but this week they announced an upgrade, with models CX5500 and CX5100 featuring 1080p HD video as well as HD audio. Polycom also announced full Lync compatibility for the new devices, further enhancing Microsoft's rapidly improving room video story.
Can the new, improved CX5500/5100 be the next generation's answer to the ubiquitous Polycom flying-saucer audio unit that we've all leaned into across countless conference tables over the years? Could this be a higher form of what Andrew Davis of Wainhouse Research has called the "huddle" model for informal video conferencing in which multiple people go to a room and gather around a single device--rather than having the company invest in an expensive, high-end (even if not immersive), formal room-based system?
That may depend on a few things. First of all, how much will the CX5500/5100 cost? A Polycom spokesperson told me that pricing for the new models won't be announced until they go GA in September, but the current-generation CX5000s appear to have street prices in the $3,000-$3,500 range.
Also, when it comes to adoption: Knowledge workers tend to bring their own laptops into conference rooms, so each person brings his or her own camera to a meeting now. But as yet, not all of those users are completely sold on desktop video clients. Will desktop video eventually become so pervasive--and WiFi bandwidth so abundant--that people will continue to carry their own dedicated laptops into meetings, with everyone transmitting his or her own personal video stream?
In a way, it's a question of where you're doing the mixing and the switching. With a multitude of individual video streams--many potentially coming from people sitting within real-world sight of each other--the mixing is done on the network and, most likely, the video system pops the active speaker into a larger window for display to the group. In contrast, the CX5500/5100 essentially makes that active-speaker decision at the endpoint, and only sends that video out onto the network and into the system. Everyone else in that physical room is basically off camera--until he or she starts speaking.
That potentially saves bandwidth and improves quality, and it also leaves the meeting participants with the option of not bringing a laptop into the meeting, and not even having a video client on their desktop (or at least not using it) if they don't want the hassle, or if they wouldn't use it in any other situation besides these meetings.
The video marketplace is clearly evolving, and potentially commoditizing, thanks to free services like Skype and Zoom. Is there room for a device like the product-formerly-known-as-Roundtable? It seems to make sense--but will the price be right? And will the immutable law of "good enough" leave everything but the free/fremium clients and services in in the dust?